In this blog post, Anirban Dip Ghosh, pursuing M.A. in business law from NUJS, Kolkata, discusses the rise of one of the most popular law firms in India, Nishith Desai Associates.
Reading this topic as part of my assignment for my MA in Business Law course, intrigued me at first. Why does knowing about a Law firm’s rise matter to my coursework on Business Law? I am not a lawyer, and neither am I preparing to found my law practice. Secondly, this didn’t sound like a large global firm, at least by its name. Off course, it did ring a few bells in my head, as I remembered coming across some of their publications long back when I was looking up the internet to read about regulations for Private Equity investments in India. However, as I continued my research, the level of intrigue changed to surprise, and surprise to embarrassment (at my lack of knowledge) and finally to respect.
The answer that I was looking for came quickly. The rise of Nishith Desai and Associates, “NDA” is not just a story about a law firm. It is also a story about an individual, an entrepreneurial journey, a “how to” guide on thinking differently and creating value for not just the client but also your employees, the firm and the nation at large. This is a journey of a man and his mission to found a firm that would take on its competition with decades of history. Mr Nishith M Desai set out to achieve this by aspiring to be “Distinctly different”, while not shying away from being called constructively contrarian.
Mr Nishith Desai, originally from Gujarat came to Mumbai in the year 1962. His grandfather was a lawyer from Dohad district, Gujarat. However, in a recent interview with Doordarshan, he instantly quips that he did not inherit a law practice from his grandfather.
At an early age, when he came to Mumbai to his Uncle’s house, he began to learn the trade of Pharmacy and got his first exposure to the world of pharmaceuticals. He subsequently pursued LLB, followed by LLM and carried out research on International tax.
It is interesting to note that while the Country was undergoing a mood of protectionism at this point in the 1970s/early 80s, with Coca-cola and IBM being asked to leave Indian soil, Mr Desai began a contrarian pursuit of learning comparative international corporate and taxation laws, which would later pave the way for the creation of a unique expertise of premium value.
In 1981, Bechtel Corporation, a global construction and engineering Company was looking for an expert from India who could advise them on certain issues, with a view of domestic and international regulations. An article published by Mr Desai in an international legal journal caught their eye and the rest, as they say, the rest is history.
As a researcher, he claims to have carried out deep research of business models of 100s of global professional services firms through the 80s and formally established Nishith Desai and Associates (“NDA”) in 1989 to be later known as a research focused law firm providing strategic legal, regulatory and tax counsel to clients which are or aspire to be global.
Business Model, Vision and USP
Now in its 27th year of existence, NDA offers solutions across a wide spectrum of Corporate Law including the following key service lines:
- International Taxation – Tax strategy & Structuring, Tax litigations, Private Client, Globalization
- Corporate & Securities – Fund formation, Fund Investments, M&A, Competition Law, Joint Ventures, Corporate Governance, Capital Markets
- Intellectual property – IP Strategy and Structuring, Global IP Portfolio Management, Technology Transfer and Licensing, Trade Secrets and Confidentiality, Franchising
- Dispute Resolution – Global Litigation Management, International Dispute Resolution
It has office locations across key business hubs such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Singapore, Silicon Valley, Munich and New York.
In a recently published study of best companies to work for in India by Silicon India Magazine, NDA found itself named under the category for legal services. The magazine succinctly summarises the achievements of the firm in the following words.
“………Having laid a strong foundation, unsurprisingly, NDA cemented its name as a thought leader in the early 90s with its path breaking work in the Mauritius treaty. Ever since the company has been undergoing an aggressive journey with 25 percent growth annually; especially the past ten years have been a rollercoaster ride for NDA.
In an epoch that is denizend in the philosophy – ‘more people, more bill’, NDA coined the term ‘nano’ firm with the aim of being the best rather than being the largest. This 125 people strong firm thinks big and scales through other value added attributes such as technology, innovation, research and thought leadership to bring forth a far better strategic advice…….”
This study goes on to talk about four key aspects of the firm that it uses to differentiate itself from the rest
- Global Exposure
- Continuous Skill development
- Attraction and Retention of High calibre resources and
- The culture of Happiness.
To obtain a deeper understanding of the culture and beliefs of this firm, as well as understand, what separates them from the rest of the competitors. My research led me to an interesting publication by John Wiley & Sons, USA in a feature titled ‘Management by Trust in a Democratic Enterprise: A Law Firm Shapes Organizational Behavior to Create Competitive Advantage’ in the September 2009 issue of Global Business and Organizational Excellence (GBOE).
This is a case-study on NDA, authored by Mr Nishith Desai himself, where he talks at length on building a trust-based, non-hierarchical, democratically managed organisation, which leverages research and knowledge to deliver premium services, high value, and a unique employer proposition.
The next few paragraphs internalised on certain key points discussed in the case study that attempts to bring out the ethos and values of the firm, based on which the firm has modelled its spectacular growth.
Differentiation through intellectual capital
NDA has been modelled in the format of another global firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (WLRK). Some of the key points that have been taken are:
- Focus on high end, complex work with opportunities for differentiation
- Exhibit complete transparency to clients in using premium billing
- Maximise revenue per employee through high-quality solutions
- Shift the focus from Mr mentality to Brain Count mentality
Vision: Proactive Strategy to building a knowledge enterprise
The firm sees research as its most distinctive feature. Using what they call an “Anticipate-Prepare-Deliver” strategy, the firm has defined three levels of building a research driven organisation.
- Anticipate trends by tracking various emerging technologies.
- Prepare by developing deep-rooted understanding of the key legal issues of the emerging technology and their implications
- Deliver expertise with a first movers advantage, once the issue becomes a reality
To understand how well NDA goes about doing this, I spent some time reading through its website’s research section. Here I came across several technical publications on various topics of current interests such as:
- Bitcoins – A global perspective
- Beyond Bitcoin: exploring the blockchain
- E-commerce in India
- Internet of things
- Ed tech: from IT to AI
- E-health in India
- Legal stakes in gaming
- Cloud computing
- Biotechnology – legal and ethical issues
- Opening up of internet telephony
These articles discuss at length an overview of the topic from a business context, reasons for its increasing relevance and then quickly moves into various emerging challenges and controversies and their legal ramifications, along with some potential solutions.
As one may imagine, this goes a big way in publishing the firm’s expertise on various contemporary issues, giving a potential future client a solid introduction into its capabilities and expertise.
Democracy and trust as management principles
In Wiley’s publication, another important differentiator that Mr Desai highlights is around his focus on using Organisation Behaviour as a tool for growth. The case study discusses at length how NDA has borrowed ideas from Charles Handy’s article on “Trust in the virtual organisations”, a Harvard Business School Publication. He also talks in detail about Mahatma Gandhi’s concepts around trusteeship and how that applies to NDA.
The overarching theme in these theories is how organisations and people need to think beyond their self-interest and build long lasting trust to do what is needed, without being micromanaged and at the same time, not giving up complete control, without oversight. He goes on to talk about how some of these ideas have been embedded into the DNA, some of which as follows:
- NDA is built on a premise that the firm and the collective interests of all are higher than individual self-interest
- The firm is “title-less” and nonhierarchical
- The management practices are based on trust, complete transparency, and democracy
- The culture is built around initiative, ownership, commitment, and passion.
- People are accorded the freedom to think, act, and earn in a team based environment.
- The firm believes it is their obligation to support social projects (trusteeship) and therefore assists selected projects on a pro-bono or quasi-pro-bono basis.
- The term intellectual capital is emphasised on instead of human resources and sees the “intangible value” of people as the firm’s greatest asset.
- Employees are treated as co-owners. They are trusted explicitly after defining the boundaries in which they are to operate.
- The firm rewards trustworthiness and loyalty. They employ the best technology resources to enable its people to create the greatest value for clients.
- The workplace policies and performance measures embody many of the principles inherent in Handy’s Rules of Trust.
Focus on rewarding Behavioral Competencies
Understanding behavioural skills is a common HR practice used for predicting the success of employees and their fitment to an Organization’s value system. In the Wiley publication, Mr. Desai explains how NDA has ingrained certain principles that focus at identifying employees who demonstrate these competencies that go beyond technical skill development. These are in some form seen as Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of the firm in attracting the right talent.
The focus of recruitment and people policies are towards hiring staff with broader mind-set and outlook towards the profession.
Some of the recruitment criteria’s as listed in their “Opportunities” section of the website are:
- Passion for learning and knowledge sharing, client satisfaction and work ethic
- Research and Analytical skills
- Communication skills
- Innovation and taking on initiatives
- Team spirit
- Leadership potential
- An attitude to excel
They encourage the development of behavioural and intangible competencies as well as skills in goal setting, performance feedback and monitoring, not just technical knowledge of a legal subject.
The firm strives for the development of behavioural competencies through training, experiential learning, exposure to clients, conferences, media, etc. and timely feedback.
A Learning Culture where learning continues after formal Law School
The firm takes pride in implementing a “Law School after Law School” concept, to accelerate learning through several formal programs:
- a 75-minute interdisciplinary “learning” session at the beginning of every workday,
- continuing education (CE) and “catch-ups” in different practice areas,
- Yearn to Learn (Y2L), akin to tutorials, where junior associates discuss and study a subject together, and
- Read to Learn (R2L), where lessons from books are shared.
Besides these, there are other learning opportunities through options such as legal research, attendance to seminars, keynote speeches, etc. , throughall of which are treated as non-chargeable work, that count towards achievement of annual performance objectives.
Walking the talk through Strategic Planning and measurement
Popularly known as a strategic management tool for planning and measurement, the Balanced Score Card (BSC) is one of the most popular methodologies adopted globally by businesses to keep a bird’s eye view of their organisational strategies and how they link to the corporate vision.
It is interesting to note that NDA has adopted this framework for organisation planning, which breaks down organisational priorities and goals under the following four themes.
- Financial Perspective
- Customers Perspective
- Learning and growth perspective
- Internal processes perspective
While financial perspective, as the name suggests is focused on generating value for the shareholders financially, customer perspective focusses on setting goals and performance measures to improve the image of an organisation in the minds of the customer. Learning and growth focus on improving the knowledge of the staff and their ability to apply higher order thinking, while Internal processes perspective looks at operational matters that support the business.
NDA tracks a number of goals around each of these perspectives, which helps to link the organisation its various objectives.
Some of the measures used are as follows:
- Revenue by Practice, Industry, Associate
- Number of services sold per client
- Number of enquiries converted to assignment
Learning and Growth
- number of quotations or appearances in the media (thought leadership)
- number of articles or research papers published
- number of speaking assignments at conferences or seminars, and
- continuing education (CE) program attendance (percentage).
- Various Internal Process metrics for operational excellence.
Jack Welch, the ex-CEO of General electric is often attributed to having said – “What gets measured, gets done”.
The measures defined in the Balanced Score Card of NDA are nothing but a reflection of how the firm has internalized its focus on learning and development, that lead to client satisfaction that goes on to result in better financial performance. It is a comprehensive approach to looking at various elements that need to come together, to be successful as a firm.
Awards and recognition
While it is all interesting to read about the governing philosophy of the firm and its claim to differentiation through the various strategies detailed in this article, I was keen to know how all of this translates to business success, for as the Firm.” goes – The proof of the pudding is in its eating.
To answer this question, I spent some time on the firm’s “About us” section. Here, one of the interesting links that are provided is “Proud Moments”, that lists 50+ awards that the firm has won over the years in various local and global forums.
While that is a long list, I have listed below 10 of those that I found to be most impressive.
- ‘Most Innovative Law Firm in Asia-Pacific’ byFinancial Times in its FT Asia-Pacific Innovative Lawyers 2016 report
- Most Innovative Indian Law Firm (2015)at the Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific Awards by the Financial Times – RSG Consulting
- Most Innovative Indian Law Firm (2014)at the Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific Awards by the Financial Times – RSG Consulting
- Chambers and Partners 2015: Ranked in Tier 1 forTMT, Tax and Employment
- “M&A Deal of the year”, “Best Dispute Management lawyer”, “Best Use of Innovation and Technology in a law firm” and “Best Dispute Management Firm”
- Legal 500 (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014): No. 1 forInternational Tax, Investment Funds and TMT
- Ranked by Chambers and Partners as No. 1 forTax and Technology-Media-Telecom (2014)
- ‘Best Tax Law Firm of the Year’ by the Legal Era Awards 2013
- “In-house Community Firm of the Year” for International Arbitration practice
- Honoured with the title of ” Yunus Social Business Pioneer of India” – 2010 by The Grameen Lab and the Wockhardt Foundation
In order to fully appreciate the importance of some of these awards, I decided to do some research on one of the most prestigious awards listed, that was recently won from Financial Times for being the ‘Most Innovative Law Firm in Asia-Pacific’.
As a background, FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific 2016 is a rankings report and awards for lawyers based in the Asia-Pacific region. Shortlists for the awards comprise the top-ranked submissions in each section of the report.
The FT and its research partner RSG Consulting devise a methodology to rank lawyers on innovation. Law firms, in-house legal teams and other legal service organisations are invited to submit their innovations. Each entry is scored out of 10 points for originality, rationale and impact for a maximum score of 30. They are then benchmarked against each other to arrive at the final rankings and shortlists. Lawyers are ranked for delivering exceptional value to business.
The FT Innovative Lawyers Asia Pacific 2016 awards received 460 submissions from 72 international law firms and 82 in-house legal teams from across the Asia Pacific region. NDA notched up a score of 200 points and was able to demonstrate innovations in 3 major categories: Finance, Corporate & Commercial and the Business of Law.
Citations on NDA noted in the FT rankings page for award under Finance Law category is: “…Provided pro bono advice and structuring input for India’s first sovereign infrastructure fund designed to minimise future political manipulation while enhancing available funding for under-served government projects….”
Citations noted in the FT rankings page for award under Business Law category is: “…Applied the full range of its legal resources, research capability and innovation expertise to develop the National Innovation Framework for the government of Mauritius, creating a new practice area….”
Citations noted in the FT rankings page for award under Corporate and Commercial Law category is: “…Devised a unique structure for Providence Equity Partners to retain its existing equity stake in a publicly listed Indian company in spite of regulations that required the fund to exit….”
As I began with the first paragraph of this article, NDA and its rise is a story with many important takeaways. While I have attempted to bring out some of the key strategies, policies and beliefs though this article as an outsider, a complete picture of the firm’s DNA can only be appreciated by two sets of people. One, its employees, who live and breathe the culture day in and day out, while the other would be its clients, who are the end recipients of their premium services.
Although I am neither of the two, the list of awards won, both for its technical innovation and superiority as well as recognition as one of the best places to work for, goes on to suggest that the firm is clearly winning the race to the hearts and minds of both these constituents.
Nayarana Murthy, the legendary co-founder of Infosys once said, “…We believe that our asset is primarily our people. Our asset walks out mentally and physically tired every evening. It is our responsibility to make sure that asset comes back enthusiastic in the morning….”.
Similarly, NDAs story is built around its brain count, rather than headcount and to appeal to the interests of the right talent, NDA seems to leave no stone unturned in its effort to publicise its intent.
How do I know? Well, If you want to apply for an opportunity with the firm, guess where you would need to email your resumes?
That would be: [email protected].
Sources and Reference:
Written while pursuing the NUJS MA in Business Laws .